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|Born||Philip Marie Constant Bancroft O'Connor
8 September 1916
Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, England
|Died||29 May 1998
|Occupation||Poet, writer, radio host|
|Notable works||Memoirs of a Public Baby|
|Partner||Anna Wing (1953–1960)|
Philip O'Connor (8 September 1916 – 29 May 1998) was an English writer and surrealist poet, who also painted. He was one of the "Wheatsheaf writers" of 1930s Fitzrovia (who took their name from the pub The Wheatsheaf). He married six times and fathered at least eight children.
Early life and education
The son of a well-educated Irish father he never knew and a woman of mixed Irish and Burmese ancestry whose aristocratic tastes exceeded her reach, he was born in Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire and taken to France, where his mother abandoned him at the age of four, in the care of a woman, Madame Tillieux, who ran a pâtisserie in the seaside resort of Wimereux near Boulogne.
Two years later, his mother returned to claim him and was met with violent protests. This heartbreaking scene later became the subject of a BBC radio play and Wimereux, its wide white beaches and the warmth of its well-ordered teashop, was to haunt O'Connor for many years afterwards. "Memories of twilight in Wimereux return home in a glass of wine," he wrote later. His mother took him back to England and then, after setting up housekeeping in a Soho cellar, abandoned him again, this time, he recounted, to the care of a one-legged bachelor civil servant who wore a size 13 boot, and who lived in a small wooden hut on Box Hill, near Dorking in Surrey. In due course, O'Connor attended the nearby Dorking High School, reading the entire works of Charles Dickens before the age of 14 but otherwise proving a difficult student, ill at ease with his fellow pupils. Leaving school at 17, O'Connor plunged into the bohemian life in the artistic quarter of London known as Fitzrovia, declaiming doggerel at bars frequented by Dylan Thomas and others, giving impassioned, if not always comprehensible, speeches at Hyde Park Corner.
Poetry was a perfect outlet for O'Connor. Receptive to the Surrealist movement then percolating through London, he rapidly produced poems that he later described as "a shockspill of sensations and thoughts in Surrealist disarray" and, with atypical modesty, as "mountebankery". His contempt for the editors who published his early work in magazines such as New Verse and Life and Letters Today was often equally fierce.
O'Connor, who began his literary career turning out surrealistic poetry, also took to buttonholing literary lions, not always to their delight. He once sent a note up to Aldous Huxley's hotel suite demanding five pounds and on another occasion jumped out from behind a door and shouted "Boo!" at T. S. Eliot.
His extreme outsider status was reinforced in his late teens by a longish period tramping across England and Ireland – an experience that formed the basis for his book Vagrancy published as a Penguin Special in 1963. His time on the road was followed by a six-month stay in the Maudsley psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed as the youngest schizophrenic in the ward. He then bounced, or fell, back into Fitzrovia and into a marriage with the daughter of a Scottish lawyer, whose inheritance he was to squander quickly. O'Connor and his frail bride returned to the hill where he had lived with his guardian and purchased another hut there. The marriage ended after five years and O'Connor embarked upon a number of other relationships, fathering an unknown number of children, in whose upbringing he was to play little part. Some of his wives and girlfriends attempted to tame him and at various times he earned a living by pushing an old man round Salisbury in a Bath chair, wielding the lights at the Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town, and as an operator on the continental telephone exchange. Along the way he took up with a woman who earned her living taking baths with older men, then improved his lot by marrying a wealthy woman who financed a high-living fling that ended when her money and her sanity ran out. (After she tried to kill him, she was confined to a mental hospital and O'Connor went on to other women.)
Memoirs of a Public Baby (1958)
The publication of the complex, adroit and highly pertinent Memoirs of a Public Baby lent O'Connor considerable prestige in literary circles. Dorothy Parker declared in Esquire that there could be no calmer word to describe the book than superb, while in The Sunday Times, Cyril Connolly proclaimed O'Connor's "acutely conscious and contemporary sensibility". The book is dedicated to Anna Wing, the actress and his third partner with whom he had a son, Jon. Its success though launched O'Connor into a career as an off-beat radio interviewer.
The book, hailed for its uncompromising honesty, was greeted in England with almost unremitting acclaim, which included an entire BBC broadcast devoted to its merits and lavish praise from Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee. The book eventually drew praise from the disparate likes of Saul Bellow, Paul Bowles, Joseph Brodsky, William Burroughs, Arthur Miller and Dorothy Parker, but generally the appreciation on the US side of the Atlantic was more mixed.
O'Connor, who emerged from his childhood with a lifelong disdain for the British middle class, fared better in the Times's Sunday Book Review, where John W. Aldridge, a professor of literature at New York University, likened him to Yeats, praised him for his "sharply epigrammatic wittiness" and hailed him for revealing himself as "an unspeakable cad, scoundrel and snob—in short a brutally honest man."
Two autobiographical sequels, The Lower View (1960), about bicycle visits to writers and artists, and Living in Croesor (1962), describing O'Connor's sojourn in a Welsh village, were less well received. But Vagrancy (1963), a study of those on the bottom of British society, enjoyed a vogue on university reading lists.
During the early 1960s O'Connor conducted a series of radio interviews for the BBC Third Programme. He talked on air with drug addicts, alcoholics and other misfits, including Quentin Crisp, in 1963. The flamboyant eccentric credited O'Connor with inventing him. Donald Carroll a publisher, who happened to hear the broadcast was impressed by Crisp's performance, and as an indirect result of the interview, Crisp wrote The Naked Civil Servant.
In material and emotional terms, O'Connor's life was stabilised in 1967 by his meeting at the age of 51 with the young, beautiful and wealthy American Panna Grady, whose self-effacing generosity to artists and writers in her New York City apartment in the Dakota building had been on an epic scale. O'Connor started the love affair that was to last for the rest of his life. Repeating the earlier pattern, the couple left immediately for France, and soon settled in Wimereux, where O'Connor's formative early years had been spent.
A few years later they and their two sons moved to the South of France, in Fontarèches, near Uzès where he lived for the rest of his life, writing thousands of letters to friends, often with abject apologies for past hurts, and keeping a daily journal that runs to millions of words.
O'Connor and Grady never married, but they created an atmosphere of strange fastidiousness around them in which O'Connor's hisses and cackles were matched by a neurasthenic fear of the sounds and movements of others. This private world hedged in by Grady's antique screens and Chinese tapestries was rarely penetrated or understood by others, though O'Connor could on occasions be an exhilarating host. Reluctant to shake hands – he was more likely to extend a dangling finger – he had considerable skills as a cook, dabbled interestingly with chicken, but was just as likely to offer visitors a glass of boiling rum as a tumbler of the best champagne. He was a heavy drinker and (at the very least) massively eccentric, living a mainly parasitic life. In his own words, he "bathed in life and dried myself on the typewriter".
- Memoirs of a Public Baby (1958)
- The Lower View (1960)
- Steiner's Tour (1960)
- Living in Croesor (1962)
- Vagrancy (1963)
- He Who Refrains (1959)
- A Morality (1959).
- Anathema (1962).
- Success (1967), conversations with Philip Toynbee, Sir Michael Redgrave, Malcolm Muggeridge and John Berger
- Andrew Barrow, Quentin and Philip (2002), Macmillan, 559 pages, ISBN 0-333-78051-5. Dual biography of Quentin Crisp and his friend Philip O'Connor.